- Clogged ears can be caused by earwax buildup, blocked Eustachian tubes, or allergies.
- Treatment typically involves trying OTC medications or at-home remedies such as a warm compress or chewing gum.
- If symptoms persist after home treatments, or if other symptoms such as ringing in your ears, dizziness, hearing loss, or balance issues appear, talk to your healthcare provider.
Are your ears blocked and feeling uncomfortable? The culprit could be anything from earwax or fluid build-up, to allergies, sinus infections or changes in air pressure. There’s a good chance that clogged ears clear up by themselves within hours or days, but it depends on what’s causing the blockage.
For minor cases, home remedies like using over-the-counter (OTC) ear drops and warm compresses can help reduce the discomfort. But if your symptoms persist, it may be a good idea to see a healthcare provider as soon as possible.
Here are a few of the most common reasons your ears may be clogged.
Earwax or Fluid Buildup
Earwax protects your ear by cleansing the ear canal and preventing debris from entering your ear. Wax is normally soft, but it can harden and there’s too much, it can cause a blockage in the ear. When wax builds up in the ear canal, it can block sound waves from reaching your eardrums. Other symptoms may include:
- Muffled hearing
- A ringing in your ears
Cleaning your ears with a cotton swab can inadvertently push ear wax deeper into your ear canal and cause these blockages. When you can avoid putting a cotton swab inside your ear.
Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (ETD)
The Eustachian tube is an opening that connects your middle ear with your nasal cavity. It helps nasal drainage, and to balance pressure in your middle ear.
Fluid and mucus can sometimes get trapped in your middle ear and clog your ear, which are usually due to congestion, the common cold, or sinusitis.
Other symptoms of ETD are:
- Clogged ears
- Muffled hearing
- Pain or pressure in your ears
- A popping or clicking noise inside your ears
It’s important to unblock the Eustachian tubes because the blockage could cause an ear infection.
During allergy season, allergens such as pollen can cause inflammation and swelling in your Eustachian tubes. This swelling can block the tubes and prevent sound from reaching your eardrum, as well as causes a sensation of fullness or pressure in your ears.
Additionally, fluid build-up due to congestion of the nose can also contribute to clogged ears. Clogged ears due to allergies can be uncomfortable and impair your hearing. If it doesn’t go away in a few days, talk to your healthcare provider.
The Eustachian tubes are responsible for equalizing pressure in your middle ear during rapid altitude changes — like during airplane take-off and landing, driving up a mountain, or scuba diving. But sometimes, the tubes don’t equalize properly and these rapid changes in air pressure make you experience temporarily clogged ears.
If you also experience pain, hearing loss, or dizziness with these altitude changes, you may be experiencing barotrauma or airplane ear. If you also have a headache, nausea, or shortness of breath, you may be experiencing altitude sickness.
A swimmer's ear (otitis externa) is also known as an outer ear infection. This may happen when water remains inside your ear after swimming. The moist environment allows bacteria and fungi to grow inside your ear canal. This can lead to itching, pain, and swelling, which in turn leads to clogged ears.
Other symptoms of swimmer’s ear include:
- Discharge of fluid
- Discharge of pus
- Treatments for Clogged Ears
If your ears are blocked, there are several treatments you can try before seeing your healthcare provider.
Over-the-counter (OTC) Medications
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Motrin (ibuprofen) or Aleve (naproxen sodium) may help reduce inflammation that causes your ears to become blocked. This can help relieve some pain. Decongestants can also help decrease nasal swelling and congestion, which can help relieve ear pressure.
A warm compress can help open the Eustachian tubes and clear out excess wax or fluid inside the ear canal. This is especially helpful if your sinuses are inflamed or infected, causing your clogged ears.
“Popping” Your Ears
Popping your ears is a simple way to reduce pressure in your ears. You can try the Valsalva maneuver. To do this, take a deep breath and then blow out while pinching your nose closed with two fingers. This should create enough pressure to “pop” or unclog the ear. Make sure you do not blow too hard, which could damage your eardrum.
You could also try the Toynbee maneuver, which involves swallowing or yawning to help equalize the pressure in your ears. This can help relieve the sensation of fullness and clogged or muffled hearing.
When you chew gum, the muscles in your jaw and throat move, which helps to balance the pressure inside your ears with the pressure outside. This movement can help relieve feelings of clogged ears.
Steam inhalation might be a helpful home remedy for unclogging ears. Steam helps thin the mucus in your airways and is warm enough to help reduce congestion. However, steam inhalation should be approached with caution. It carries the serious risk of burning the airways and causing additional discomfort.
You can do this by turning on a hot shower and sitting in the bathroom, or placing a hot or warm washcloth over your ear.
Make sure that the temperature of the steam is not too hot to avoid burns or scalds on the skin and inside your nose and throat.
When To See a Doctor
In some cases, clogged ears may require medical attention due to infection, pain, hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), vertigo (a sensation of motion or spinning), or balance issues. See your healthcare provider if your symptoms persist after trying home remedies or if they don’t go away in a few days.
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